Tag Archives: Cook Survey

Inflating peer-review

In the presentation to the public of the findings of the Cook survey in The Consensus Project, we already saw the consensus being inflated well beyond what was actually surveyed. This post will focus in on the small piece of text in which the peer-review process is explained to the public.

theconsensusproject peer-review

As text (emphasis by the authors):

What is peer-reviewed, and why is it important? When a paper has been peer-reviewed, that means it has been evaluated by a number of qualified scientists and found to have followed legitimate scientific methods.

When seeing it explained like this, the peer-review process seems to be quite overrated. As far as I know the peer-review process is more like a quality control. Some peers looked at the paper and they found it okay to publish. That a paper has been peer-reviewed doesn’t mean it is necessarily true.

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Inflating the consensus even more

As seen in previous post, the statements to describe the consensus in The Consensus Project were actually not very truthful. The suggestion was that the queried scientific papers concluded that global warming is a reality and direct result of our actions. This was not the case. Only few paper investigated the physics and most of the papers started from the assumption that global warming is a reality. That is something different altogether.

There also was the suggestion that the authors investigated “climate papers”, which was not the case. They investigated papers with the terms “global warming” and “global climate change” somewhere in the title and/or the abstract. A lot of papers weren’t even about climate research at all.

Therefor I called it inflating the consensus. They presented their case well beyond the scope of their paper (and also previous papers).

Today’s post will be about another aspect of misdirection. The two statements on that page:

Every year, more and more peer-reviewed scientific papers have concluded that global warming is a reality, and a direct result of our actions.

and

97% of published climate papers with a position on human-caused global warming agree: Global warming is happening – and we are the cause.

could be interpreted in more than one way. When we just look at the words, it could be understood whether the papers endorse a warming and to what extent humans were considered the cause. But this statement is not used in such a neutral way. If we look at the bottom of the page we see a link to “About the solutions”.

The Consensus Project overview

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Inflating the consensus

After the Cook presentation a month ago, I thought it would be interesting to see how his ideas were presented to the public. So I went back to the website of the The Consensus Project. This is how the consensus is explained:

the consensus project: about the consensus

Let’s start with the three statements in the top left part of the image:

The consensus of evidence

EVERY YEAR, more and more peer-reviewed scientific papers have concluded that global warming is a reality, and a direct result of our actions.

MEANWHILE, the number of papers that disagree have remained tiny by comparison.

The implication seems rather clear: when we have so much papers in evidence of global warming and so little papers that disagree, believing the statement would be a no-brainer for the public. But not everything is what it seems. There are so many things in those few sentences that don’t fit.

The fact that many scientist have this opinion, doesn’t mean that it is automatically true. If history learns us something it is that scientists agree on many things in the past and this consensus position was wrong afterwards. To be honest, it is not automatically false either. As far as I know science is about which idea is right, not which idea is the most popular.

The point is: how meaningful are these statements? And is this an honest representation of what was found in their study?

For example: it is not true that the scientific papers queried in the Cook survey concluded that global warming is a reality. Most of them weren’t even about the science of global warming, let alone about the evidence of global warming, but they were based just on the assumption that climate change is real and started their research from there.

Big difference.

So I am not really sure where that The consensus of “evidence” comes from. Some categories like Impacts were not about the evidence, but anthropogenic global warming was their starting point, not their conclusion. Unless you call for example The Denial Of Climate Change Among Conservative White Males In The United States an example of the evidence that proves global warming.

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How meaningful is the consensus on global warming?

Since almost a month now I am picking on the “scientific consensus” on global warming, more specific the consensus found in the Cook Survey. Now you could ask: “Isn’t it the reality that there is a consensus between scientists?”.

It could surprise you, but I think that, indeed, most people believe in man-made global warming and I see no reason why it would be different for scientists.

“But” would you say, “Then why the picking on all those studies that actually find a consensus?”. The answer is simple and is in fact another question: what exactly is there a consensus about and how meaningful would that be?

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Is there a consensus whether global warming is dangerous?

One of the many things that I found remarkable in the Cook presentation was the slide with the well known tweet of the President of the United States (actually the organization that manages his tweet account):

twitter 20130516 ninety-seven-percent

This tweet was not a surprise as such. I have seen this tweet many times before and I know how it was used. The surprise is that it was presented here.

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The accuracy of the proof or the accuracy of the selection?

cook presentation 97% consensus

There wasn’t anything new in the Cook lecture, yet there was one thing that showed me a new way of looking at the consensus. I already knew there were different studies and I knew they show about the same results, but I had not yet seen the results shown in one image.

If I would look at it with the eyes of somebody who was ignorant on the matter, I would be really impressed by such results. They get the same result every time, even with different methodologies. Looking like that, I would surely think that this 97% value is a pretty plausible figure, a robust quantification of the consensus.

But by looking at those numbers next to each other, it dawned on me. My first thought was: “No way!”. I looked into the methodologies of those three studies earlier and I must admit that I have a hard time believing that with such crude methodologies and rather ambiguous statements, one could get about the same results with just a couple tenths of a percent difference!

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One analogy too far

Several times in the Cook lecture I couldn’t resist smiling and thinking that he couldn’t believe that himself. Could he? The first time was when Cook said that for complicated issues we rely on the experts and then gave an analogy: bridges. The public is trusting those who build bridges. They trust that bridges are save to cross. The implication seems clear. Why shouldn’t we give the same trust to our climate scientists? Those are the “experts” when it comes to the climate.

I heard that one in several variations and it is rather funny if you think about it.

Sure, I trust that crossing a bridge is save. I realize that bad things can happen (like for example the Tacoma bridge), but this happens rather seldom. It is fair to say that bridge engineers know what they are doing and I have no problem trusting their expertise when walking across a bridge.

Analogies are great, but only go as far as the similarities go. Climate science is a different kind of breed compared to engineering. People build bridges for many thousand years. In engineering the basis is well established, the properties of the materials well known. Feed this into a model and it will work pretty reliable.

Compare that to climate science which is a fairly new science that is studying a very complex matter. Many things are not (well) known, observational data is only available from the end of the 1970s, uncertainties are huge, the science politicized,…

So the comparison is rather flawed. Let’s make the correct comparison.

Suppose you knew that the technology of building bridges was fairly new. Suppose you knew that the technology of bridge building was based on scarce and incomplete observational data. Suppose you knew that only few bridges were build and that most of them collapsed. Suppose you knew that the properties of the materials were hardly known, there were huge uncertainties on how all these things fit together and nobody knew exactly how they would act under a load.

Would you be able to cross that bridge in a relaxed way?

Update

When lookingt at other commentaries they seem to focus more on the question “if 97% say the bridge will collapse and 3% who say the bridge will not collapse, who to believe?”. Maybe I missed something while making notes. For some reason I connected the “expert” statement with the analogy, probably because they followed each other. Have to check with the video how it was actually brought.

Whatever be the case, the analogy will always fail because of the incorrect comparison of bridge engineers (who study a well defined, well understood topic) with climate scientists (who study a complex system with huge uncertainties). Therefor it can easily be reversed. If that 97% agreement is based on incomplete data, processes not yet (well) understood,… then whatever the level of agreement is that the bridge will fail, it will be basically meaningless.

There are also many other possible analogies. See below in the comments for additional thought experiments.